Icon: Anna May Wong

Icon: Anna May Wong

May is Asian Heritage month in Canada and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States. In honouring the contributions of those with Asian heritage to culture in North America, we wanted to make a post about the great Anna May Wong.

She was born Wong Liu Tsong in LA in 1905, the daughter of second generation Chinese American parents. Movies were shot constantly in and around her neighbourhood on Figueroa Street. She begged filmmakers for roles. Her first came when she was just 14 years old, playing an extra in The Red Lantern. She dropped out of school in 1921 to pursue acting seriously. She received her first screen credit for “Bits of Life”, in which she played the wife of Lon Chaney’s character.

Her first leading role was in “The Toll of the Sea”, based on Madama Butterfly, for which she received universal praise. Despite this, Hollywood was still reluctant to create starring roles for her due to her ethnicity. In 1924 she appeared in The Thief of Bagdad and Peter Pan, which earned her more fame. She began to cultivate a flapper image to appeal to American audiences who still saw her as foreign even though she was born and raised in California. She continued in supporting roles for the next few years.

In 1926, she put the first rivet into the structure of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. 

She starred in The Silk Bouquet (renamed The Dragon Horse) which was the first Hollywood movie with Chinese backing. It featured Asian actors playing Asian roles.

The increasing censorship against mixed race couples on screen cost her many leading roles. Tired of all of this, she left America for Europe in 1928. Her career blossomed there as she was offered many roles in notable films such as “Der Weg zur Schande”. 

She had a close friendship with Marlene Dietrich. Rumours that the two were a couple damaged her career. 

She appeared on stage with Laurence Oliver in London in “A Circle of Chalk” and sought received pronunciation lessons to quell her American accent. She had a starring role in five silent British films, the last of which was “Piccadilly” in 1929. It is considered her best film by many. 

Back in America in the 1930s, the studios were looking for fresh European talent and they ironically turned to Wong. She accepted a contract with Paramount. 

She used her newfound fame in the 1930s to advocate for Chinese-American causes and better film roles, as well criticizing the stereotyping of Chinese roles. 

She appeared in a prominent role in Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich in 1932, with costumes designed by Travis Banton. 

The Chinese press were not so favourable in their reviews of Wong, believing that she was disgracing the Chinese people in her sexually charged roles. 

One of her most famous costumes was the dragon motif Belle Epoque dress she wore in Limehouse Blues (1934) designed by Travis Banton. The MET Gala’s 2015 exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass” featured this dress. 

After Shanghai Express, her career returned to its old pattern of being passed over in favour of white actresses even if the role was Asian. As a result, she returned to the UK where she appeared in four more films. She joined a vaudeville show and toured Ireland and Scotland. She appeared in the King George Silver Jubilee in 1935. 

She tried to secure the lead role of O-Lan in The Good Earth but MGM wouldn’t consider her and cast German actress Luise Rainer instead. They deemed Anna “too Chinese” for this Chinese part. The Chinese government also advised studios not to cast her. Rainer won an Oscar for her performance. MGM’s refusal to consider Wong for this most high profile Chinese role in US film is remembered as one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s. 

She embarked on a year long tour of China in 1936. She later commented that some of the varieties of Chinese she encountered sounded “as strange to me as Gaelic. I thus had the strange experience of talking to my own people through an interpreter.”  On her return to America she confessed "I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers, because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts."

She wrapped up her Paramount contract by making a string of B movies with more positive portayals of Chinese characters, which generated approval from the official Chinese consul to Los Angeles. Daughter of Shanghai became her favourite part. 

She auctioned off her movie costumes in 1938 and donated the money to Chinese aid. Between 1939 and 1942, she made few films, instead engaging in events and appearances in support of the Chinese struggle against Japan. In 1942, she made 2 anti-Japanese propaganda films and donated her salaries to United China Relief. After this she took a break from acting before returning to star in the TV series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (her real name) in 1951.

She hosted an ABC documentary on China in 1956, the first narrated by a Chinese American. 

She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, the first Asian-American actress to receive one. 

Her final film role was in 1960 in “Portrait in Black” with Lana Turner. 

At the age of 56 in 1961, she tragically died of a heart attack. 


She was the first Chinese American actress in Hollywood to gain international recognition. Her work helped to humanize Chinese Americans to American audiences at a time of intense racism and discrimination. The Anna May Wong Award of Excellence is given each year at the Asian-American Arts Awards. Retrospectives of her work were held at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image in the early 2000s. 

She was a fashion icon throughout the 20s and 30s in both Europe and America. In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her "The World's best-dressed woman" and in 1938 Look magazine named her "The World's most beautiful Chinese girl”. She was every bit the modern woman whether she wore traditional Chinese attire or the latest western fashions. John Galliano was inspired by her in creating his SS 1993 collection for Dior and Anna Sui referenced her in her AW 2014 collection. 

She is depicted as one of the four ladies of Hollywood in the Gateway to Hollywood sculpture, erected in 1993. 

She was recently portrayed by Michelle Krusiec in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood. 

Li Jun Li played a role inspired by Wong in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022).

Last year, Mattel released a doll based on her for Asian Heritage Month. 

A new biopic is in the works with actress Gemma Chan set to play her.  

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